Friday, May 11, 2012

Traditional Values: Nothing To Laugh About

Religion & Society

I felt there's a wealth in Jewish tradition, a great inheritance.
I'd be a jerk not to take advantage of it. 
Herman Wouk, 
in Time, "The Wouk Mutiny," September 5, 1955

Tradition: Bronze tympanum above main entrance of the Library of Congress' Thomas Jefferson Building.
Artist: Olin Levi Warner [1844-1896]; 1895
Photo Credit: Carol Highsmith, 2007
Source: Wikipedia

Depending on the group you're with, when someone brings up traditional values, another person might make a comment or snide remark, suggesting that traditional values are old-fashioned, anti-progressive and the final killer blow, linked to a religious point of reference. Such language betrays the views of this individual and gives you a clue how that individual thinks. One of the normative views of all progressives and Marxists is the desire to rid society of old, established traditions; yet, it doesn't end there. Since people can't live in a vacuum, the old is soon replaced by the new, with no guarantee that the new is better than the old. In many ways, the new protesting voice can be worse, as is the case of Marxism.

So, why do persons rail against tradition? While the reasons might vary, one explanation is that tradition has a long coded meaning. In Tradition (University of Chicago Press; 1981), Edward Shils, a distinguished sociologist, writes cogently and elegantly about how tradition came to be regarded in a pejorative sense. I think it is among the best explanations for tradition's low regard among both the the social scientists and the scientifically literate.
Rationality and scientific knowledge on the one side and traditionality and ignorance on the other were set against each other as antithesis. The party of progress, which believed that mankind must move forward towards emancipation from arbitrary and oppressive authority and towards the conduct of human afairs by scientifically illuminated reason, abominated the condition of superstition and ignorance in which most human beings lived.  The substance of most dogmas was often of long duration; it was part of tradition. Dogmas and the coercion of belief were coupled with each other. Tradition acquired the bad name which had become attached to dogma. (5)
Some will recognize, perhaps as a surprise to themselves, that this explanation can apply to a secular tradition in which rationality and scientific thought informs all of their views. [I have written about the limitations of rationality; see here and here]. Often, the mistake is made between equating traditional values and cultural mores. They might intersect at a point in history, but traditional values have a much longer history, and these are undoubtedly linked to religious values.

There's the rub. And that's where some people become uncomfortable, often recalling some past hurt, some injustice or some aggrievement at the hands of a religious authority. That's where and when the tirade against traditional values begins, and never ends. Now, if we can get past certain well-formed prejudices, we might see the value of tradition. There is a lot of things good about traditional values. One of the few places where traditional values of civility, honesty, restraint and rational thought is taught are in the primary and secondary schools. For all the complaints about schools and teachers, they are on of the few places where students, for the most part, still adhere to a traditional model of learning and behaviour. [see here].

Even so, most argue against the religious tradition, seeing in it all that is contrary to science and the rational thought. But such view is myopic. Now, I might not agree with everything that my religious tradition—Judaism—holds as true and essential, but I do see its value and importance as an ameliorating force in society. In that  regard, I am on the same side as Herman Wouk. Many of the good that society receives from it comes as a direct or indirect result of persons holding a traditional view, including the requirement to better society—not by destroying but by building. And it's by building on the edifice of tradition, whether acquired or mandated from Above.

It is these same traditions that, despite the accusations and complaints of the progressives, have made the West the envy of the world. While some question the motives, the motivation is secondary to the act. Is it really necessary to question good?


  1. Ibn Warraq's latest book, THE WEST IS BEST, expresses great admiration for all the historic buildings in New York and elsewhere. He is also the author of WHY I AM NOT A MUSLIM and is clearly opposed to religious faith, while admiring history and tradition.
    Religion is beautiful as long as you don't believe in it.

    1. Point noted. It might be to some rationalist's chagrin that your argument can also apply to a faith in Science & Technology.


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